A man’s home is his castle, according to the old English proverb. But James Wagley and Deb Newell’s home really is a castle — or at least a 20th-century facsimile of one — reigning over a wooded hilltop in the kingdom of Eagan.
The site is so secluded that Wagley and Newell, a married couple who are also business partners, didn’t even know it was there before they stumbled across an online listing in December 2013.
“My wife said, ‘Do you want to buy a castle in Eagan?’ ’’ Wagley recalled. “I said, ‘Where is one? How do we not know about this house?’ We lived only 2 miles away.”
The couple, who own a property-management company and have bought and restored multiple homes, decided to go check out the neighboring manor. It had been vacant for almost a year and needed a lot of updates, but Wagley and Newell were enchanted by the possibilities.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do this!’ ” Wagley said.
What made it so irresistible?
“The overall structure, the way it’s laid out,” Wagley said. “You could get a sense of his [the original owner’s] vision. The house had great bones — and ugly makeup. It was an opportunity to remodel a home with timeless beauty that needed some TLC.”
The man with the vision was former Northwest Airlines CEO Steve Rothmeier, who built the house for himself in 1985, on acreage a few miles from the airline’s corporate headquarters. (Rothmeier, who died last year, was still the owner when Wagley and Newell bought the house.)
St. Paul architect Tom Blanck, who designed the grand home for Rothmeier, said his client requested a Germanic castle, with a circular entry turret. It also was designed to accommodate corporate entertaining and overnight guests, with seven garage bays for visitors’ cars, as well as a banquet-sized dining room and a soaring great room with a second-story “minstrel’s gallery” where musicians could play during parties. A few years after building the home, Rothmeier added an attached Bavarian-style chapel with a raised altar and a bell tower.
Wagley and Newell, who have three children, wanted to turn the bachelor business mogul’s party-and-prayer palace into a 21st-century family home. And instead of a German castle, they wanted their home to have a French accent.
“I lived in France … and we like all things French,” Wagley said. “We saw the style of the house as something translatable to many styles, more generally European.”
Thus began an intense seven-month project to repair and rehabilitate the structure, and replace dated ’80s finishes and fixtures.
The couple replaced rotting wood, windows and doors, and the original roof, re-stuccoed the exterior (from reddish to gray) and scraped and skimcoated the original popcorn ceilings.
They Frenchified the entry turret by replacing the massive oak railings on the circular staircase with wrought iron, and swapping the rustic tile floor with a dramatic geometric pattern of white Carrara marble and black granite.
The oak floors and thick rift-cut baseboards were beautiful, but were stained a ruddy-brown hue that didn’t work with the gray, white and black palette the couple wanted for their new home.
“We liked the pattern, but just didn’t like the look of the wood,” Wagley said. “We had it stripped and finished as though it was furniture. It looks black, but you can still see the grain.”
The kitchen, with its breakfast room overlooking the back yard and gazebo, had large, appealing spaces, but original 1980s materials. The new owners gutted it, replacing the white Formica countertops with gray-veined white quartzite, and the cabinets with black-painted maple, aiming for a timeless look. “It’s like an old manor house. You can imagine a maid scurrying around, although we don’t have a maid,” Wagley said.
One of the biggest changes was converting the master bedroom and part of the attic into an expanded two-story master suite. “The room was narrow, and the closet was tiny,” Wagley said. And, although they plan to stay in the house until all their kids have graduated from high school, they knew a master suite would enhance resale. “The next buyer would expect a more spacious bedroom,” he said.
The suite now has its own entry foyer. “We made it like a New York apartment,” Wagley said. Just inside, in the former bedroom space, is a massive closet that would make even Carrie Bradshaw drool, complete with built-ins and the room’s original fireplace. More than a walk-in closet, it’s a “live-in closet,” Wagley said.
The new master bath is a spalike retreat au deux, with his-and-her vanities, a free-standing tub and a double shower finished with Carrara marble tile.
Up a short flight of stairs is a new sleeping chamber and half-bath — “so you don’t have to go downstairs in the middle of the night,” Wagley noted.
The couple’s three kids also got updated bedrooms and baths. Their daughter, the youngest at age 12, has a “dream suite,” with a fireplace, walk-in closet, bath and balcony. Her two teenage brothers have their own rooms and share a bath.
Wagley and Newell discovered that furnishing a castle is trickier than furnishing an average suburban home.
In the massive great room, for example, the couple struggled to find artwork on a grand enough scale to hang above the fireplace. “It’s a lot of space to fill,” Wagley noted. “We tried a few pictures up there, but they looked like postage stamps.”
They finally settled on a mount of a kudu, an African antelope with long, dramatic horns. “We were looking for something with grandeur and mystique.”
Another exotic touch is the giant elephant made of solid mango wood that stands in one corner of the great room. “Rothmeier had it carved and shipped from Sri Lanka,” Wagley said.
The elephant is so huge and heavy that Rothmeier’s family asked if it could stay with the house. “It took five husky guys breaking their backs” just to move it from the foyer to the great room, Wagley said.
Rothmeier’s Bavarian chapel is now a movie room, outfitted with six recliners. “It has wonderful acoustics,” Wagley noted. The bell and confession gate were donated to a Catholic parish.
The two servants’ apartments in the carriage house are now a guest suite. And the “minstrel’s balcony” overlooking the great room has been converted into a sitting area. “We haven’t hired any minstrels yet,” Wagley said.
Now, instead of corporate entertaining, the home hosts more casual family entertaining.
“It’s fun for kids to come over to a castle,” Wagley said. “They play a game, Murder — that’s a lot of fun in a castle. It adds to the overall effect.”
Day-to-day living in a castle is unlike living in a typical suburban home, he added. “It’s very different from our previous home, with its open floor plan. These are designated rooms. I like the formal areas. There’s just a mystique there.”
There’s a lot more privacy, thanks to the elevated and heavily wooded lot. “There’s not one curtain or blind in this house,” Wagley said. “The sunrises are unbelievable.”
And there’s a lot more space for people and objects to get lost in. “What I notice the most is that my feet hurt from walking,” Wagley said. “When someone says, “Go find the iPad,’ you’ve got to cover 10,000 square feet. If you need a quiet space, you can find one, although with three kids and the dogs, it’s not quiet for long.”